cientists have developed a small, soft, flexible implant that relieves pain on demand without the use of drugs.
The new device, which is the thickness of a piece of paper, could provide an alternative to opioids and other highly addictive drugs, researchers suggest.
It works by softly wrapping around nerves to deliver precise, targeted cooling, numbing nerves and blocking pain signals to the brain.
Users remotely activate the device with an external pump and can control its intensity.
According to the study, after the device is no longer needed, it naturally absorbs into the body, meaning it does not need to be surgically removed.
At the thickness of a sheet of paper, the device is ideal for treating highly sensitive nerves, researchers say.
John Rogers, Northwestern University, America, who led the device’s development, said: “Although opioids are extremely effective, they also are extremely addictive.
“As engineers, we are motivated by the idea of treating pain without drugs — in ways that can be turned on and off instantly, with user control over the intensity of relief.
“The technology reported here exploits mechanisms that have some similarities to those that cause your fingers to feel numb when cold.
“Our implant allows that effect to be produced in a programmable way, directly and locally to targeted nerves, even those deep within surrounding soft tissues.”
Researchers believe the device could be most valuable for patients who undergo routine surgeries or even amputations that often require pain medication after the procedure.
Surgeons could implant the device during the surgery to help manage post-operative pain.
Prof Rogers added: “If you think about soft tissues, fragile nerves and a body that’s in constant motion, any interfacing device must have the ability to flex, bend, twist and stretch easily and naturally.
“Furthermore, you would like the device to simply disappear after it is no longer needed, to avoid delicate and risky procedures for surgical removal.”
The findings are published in the journal Science.